Stepping Back, USA’s Hammer Appoints Two Successors

In a move that reflects the cooperative nature of USA Network’s programming and marketing efforts, Jeff Wachtel and Chris McCumber have been named co-presidents of the top-rated cable channel.

The twin appointments were announced by Bonnie Hammer, chairman, NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and Cable Studios. Wachtel and McCumber will jointly manage strategic direction and day-to-day operations across all platforms for USA, reporting to Hammer.

Wachtel has served as USA’s president of original programming since March 2009. Since joining the network 10 years ago, Wachtel has spearheaded development of a vast roster of hits, including Burn Notice, Royal Pains, White Collar and Covert Affairs. He also was an engineer of the network’s earlier successes, steering signature programs like Monk and The Dead Zone.

As Wachtel worked to distinguish USA by way of its original series offerings––as co-head of creative for Universal Cable Productions, he also shares oversight of all studio operations––McCumber was charged with transforming the network’s public face. Once a sleepy outpost for ‘80s movies, game shows and oddities like the Gilbert Gottfried-hosted Up All Night, USA’s rise to the top of the cable heap called for a deft reimagining of the brand.

Upped in December 2007 to evp of marketing, digital and brand strategy, McCumber oversaw the conception, development and execution of “Characters Welcome,” the first comprehensive brand positioning in USA’s 30-year history. Out went the generic American flag logo; in its place, McCumber envisioned a more organic design that would serve as a graphic counterpoint to the network’s “blue skies” programming philosophy.
 
The symbiotic relationship between content and brand identity has helped USA lead the cable pack for five years running, in both total viewers and the core TV demos. In 2010, the net averaged 3.16 million viewers in prime, down only slightly from the record 3.27 million viewers it delivered the previous year.

Naturally, the homegrown series have been a cornerstone of USA’s success. Last year, the network boasted four of the top 10 original series on basic cable, including third-ranked Royal Pains (7.33 million viewers) and rookie upstart Covert Affairs, which ranked fourth with an average draw of 7.05 million viewers, per Nielsen live-plus-seven-day ratings data.


Despite pulling back from the network she’s steered since 2004, Hammer said USA “will remain a top priority” for her, adding that the two execs are the best combination of talent available to lead USA in the Comcast-NBC Universal era. “Not only have Chris and Jeff performed consistently at the top of their games, their collaborative style is a critical part of USA’s DNA and a key component of the network’s success,” she said.

Hammer in 2008 made a similar move at Syfy (then known as Sci Fi Channel), when she appointed Dave Howe president of the network.

With her two pet nets in good hands, Hammer will now turn her attention to the newly acquired Comcast Entertainment property, E!. A network graced by a score of familiar faces––The Soup’s Joel McHale is also the star of NBC’s comedy Community, while multi-hyphenate Ryan Seacrest wears so many hats it may be less time-intensive to list where he doesn’t work––E! is also on a ratings tear.
 
Last year, the network closed out the year ranked 30th among all basic-cable channels, averaging 681,000 viewers in prime (an increase of 16 percent year over year). Viewers 18-49 were up 15 percent, thanks to unscripted originals such as Keeping Up With the Kardashians and its spinoff, Kourtney & Khloe Take Miami.

Hammer’s first order of business is to identify a replacement for erstwhile E! chief and Comcast Entertainment CEO Ted Harbert. Alongside ex-Showtime entertainment head Bob Greenblatt, Harbert began running NBC’s broadcasting unit in January.

Sources at NBCU said Hammer is nearing a decision, and that the new hire is likely to be someone from outside the E! universe. Recent speculation has been almost comically overwrought; one trade this week published what amounted to a laundry list of nearly every available veteran of the female-friendly cable space.